Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China specialist based in Hong Kong, provides an overview of “Thucydides’ Trap,” as coined by political scientist Graham Allison to describe the inescapable conflict between Beijing and Washington. Is China’s growing power a threat to the United States? Could it lead to war between the two nations?
Economically and militarily stronger, and more nationalist than ever, the People’s Republic of China is increasingly tempted to use force to assert its power, especially in its immediate region. First, the author considers the factors around the threat of war, specifically on the Chinese side, then presents the three most likely armed conflict scenarios: around Taiwan; in the South China Sea; or in the Senkaku Islands under Japanese control. Cabestan also analyses the tensions between China and India along their common borders, which were revived in 2020.
But the most likely scenario, according to Cabestan, would be a rapid, piecemeal attack, aimed at tearing borders apart or defending vested interests – not to mention increased cyber warfare. It could also manifest itself as the emergence of a new type of cold war, punctuated by crises bordering on either a nuclear strike or the use of new weapons. U.S.-Chinese tensions and the many potential fronts on which they could elevate are a conflict-in-waiting which will weigh on the 21st century and dominate international life as China seeks to become entrenched as a dominant world power.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan is emeritus senior researcher at the French Center for Scientific Research, Paris, and emeritus professor of political science, department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is also associate researcher at the Asia Centre, Paris and at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, Hong Kong. His main themes of research are Chinese politics and law, China’s foreign and security policies, China-Africa relations, China-Taiwan relations and Taiwanese politics. His most recent publications are China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Demain la Chine: guerre ou paix? (China Tomorrow: War or Peace?, Gallimard, 2021), due to be published in English by Rowman & Littlefield in early 2023.
Introduction: The Thucydides Trap Revisited
1 An Accumulation of Passions and Ammunition
The United States
China’s Main Neighbors: Japan, India, Australia
2 War Risks Debate in China
China’s Official Position: Xi Intends Avoiding War
Debates Among Chinese Experts
3 Is a Sino-US War over Taiwan Likely?
Evolution in Chinese Reunification Strategy and US Engagements
The PLA’s Specific Preparations for War against Taiwan
Evolution of Debates in China over an Anti-Taiwan War
Evolution of US Debates over an Anti-Taiwan War
Evolution of Debates and Defense Policy in Taiwan
Gray Zones: Non-Military Ways of Subjugating Taiwan
Conclusion: The Impact of the Ukraine War and Its Limits
4 War Risks in the South China Sea
Various Parties’ Claims and Controls
Proliferating Sino-US Conflicts
5 War Risks over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands
Chinese and Japanese Stands on the Dispute
Chinese Actions Aimed at Undermining Japanese Sovereignty over the Senkaku
Hardening of Japanese and US Stands and the 2014 Agreement
Crisis Management Mechanisms and Their Limitations
Enhanced Senkaku Militarization
Clarifications and Incertitudes
6 Border Tensions and Risks of a China-India War
Recent Rise in Border Tensions
Risks of Sino-Indian War
7 Which Armed Conflicts Might China Engage In?
Strengthening PLA Projection Capabilities and Future MOA Scenarios
Conclusion: War or Peace Tomorrow?
War Will Likely Not Erupt Tomorrow
Risks or Armed Incidents and Military Crises
Sino-US Struggle for World Leadership: How Will It End?
Towards a New Kind of Cold War and Its Consequences for the Western Pacific
The Role of the US and Its Allies
About the Author
What is the likelihood that the US will go to war with China soon? Cabestan’s volume starts and ends with the “Thucydides Trap,” assessing the relevance of the fifth-century (BC) war between Athens and Sparta to China's grand strategy as a rising power seeking to displace the hegemon, the US. Two chapters treat the rise of nationalism and military power in China and internal debates over the risks of war. Three chapters view probable scenarios of China-US conflict: over Taiwan, in the South China Sea, and over the Senkaku Islands. Another considers Sino-Indian border tensions and conflict on the Korean peninsula. Cabestan believes these flash points are not likely to erupt, given China’s reluctance to use force to solve territorial issues. More likely are continued “gray zone tactics” until the People’s Liberation Army can project force easily to nearby and distant targets. For the next decade or so, Cabestan predicts a “cold peace” between the US and China. His volume is among the best in the flurry of books discussing China-US struggles because of its skillful analysis of China-US conflict and attempted even-handedness in treating complex cases like Taiwan. Highly recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty; professionals; general readers.
In this systematic study, veteran China scholar Jean-Pierre Cabestan digs deep into different potentialities for conflict on China’s periphery—vis-à-vis Taiwan, Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and the United States. This is a study of both calculations and capabilities. The author demonstrates how, in each case, real conflict could erupt—due to a potent combination of mutual misperceptions and miscalculations, China’s revanchist nationalism, provocations, or unintended accidents. A significant contribution to the literature on Asian security.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan gives an excellent overview of key areas with regard to China’s current security approach. It addresses several potential conflicts, from Taiwan to the South China Sea and the Senkaku islands, and the Sino-Indian border. It is not trying to be exhaustive but focuses on critical areas. The best part is without a doubt the chapter on Taiwan, a territory the author knows well. Cabestan is good at presenting materials in a clear and pedagogical manner.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan’s Facing China is an important work. He examines China’s national security policies from the inside out, looking first at how China’s officials and scholars define and debate national interests and whether China can effectively advance those interests with military power. Cabestan then applies his analytical template to three theaters: Taiwan, Japan, and India. His balanced judgments should be a part of any discussion of China’s future trajectory.
Will China and America soon be at war over Taiwan? Many hawkish elites in both countries think so, and they have considerable domestic power in both governments - though they might be wrong. Jean-Pierre Cabestan has deep knowledge of Taiwan, mainland China, and America too. He surveys the whole Asian landscape around China, including India and Japan. He assesses the applicability (or not) of "Thucydides trap" warnings that predict conflict between the world's two most powerful militaries. Everyone who is interested in the future should read this book.
Veteran China scholar Jean-Pierre Cabestan provides a masterful and lucid assessment of the prospects for conflict with China. Going beyond the familiar ‘Thucydides trap’ analyses, he persuasively evaluates both the most obvious and some of less evident possible pathways to war between China and its neighbors and, in turn, the United States.